Following Book Four, ' The Politics of Turnips,' where Flora Gusset visits Fekenham along with a travelling circus and a gang of bank robbers who abduct Billy Twist and his girlfriend Sally Braganza-Smythe, comes this brief tangential tale that again features newly promoted Detective Inspector Adam Lazarus. As book four was, in fact, the fifth in the series this 'follow-up' is, by default, the sixth. Make sense? Well, it does to me.
Birchtickle: it’s a funny old name isn’t it? The etymology of the place was thought to have come from Anglo-Saxon but in truth, no one knew for sure and cared even less. Birchtickle lies south of Fekenham Swarberry. It is several cottages short of a village having only a handful of homes that surround the old pond. In ancient times the pool had been used for ducking witches. The most famous of these was Matilda Willowbough. Five times she went under and five times held her breath and always for an extraordinarily long period. Just as the judgement was about to be passed proclaiming Matilda to indeed be a witch, she was plunged back into the placid waters for the sixth time. On this occasion she was held under for five minutes and when brought back to the surface dead the gathered villagers decided she wasn’t a witch after all and that they had always liked dear old Matilda. Ethelred the Bogus even declared he thought Matilda had a fine pair of lungs. Ethelred always had a way with words.
The Ducking or Cucking Stool as it was known was well used throughout Wessex, not just for witches but for any female who nagged too much or was abusive in public places. Often the punishment turned to torture as women thought to have broken codes of conduct were strapped to the wooden chair before being plunged into freezing cold water. Some saw it as being a foolproof way to establish whether a suspect was a witch or not. Oddly, few men were ducked. In later years the process changed when the punishment was inflicted without the chair. In this instance, the victim's right thumb was bound to her left big toe. A rope was attached around her waist before the so-called witch was thrown into the pond. If the woman floated it was deemed that she was, in fact, a witch but if she drowned she was said to have been innocent.
Since then the pond at Birchtickle had seen a tiny hamlet grow, all the dwellings of which looked upon the pond from their doorways. Today Todd Gosling and his friend Sam Grimstain, both twelve years old, had decided to go fishing and where better to practise that activity than the pond that faced one’s home? Todd was a gingery blond boy of medium height for a lad his age. His face was freckled and his nose upturned. His hair stuck up at odd angles about his head. He wore a hooped jumper and a pair of ragged trousers. Sam, his friend, was brown haired. His fringe covered most of his eyes so that he was forced regularly to throw his head back to get the curtain of hair out of his eyes. He was slightly taller than Todd and probably a little thinner. Between them, they carried a pair of fishing rods and two rucksacks containing enough provender to last for a week’s, let alone a day’s, fishing.
The morning was cool as early spring mornings so often are in Albion. It was slightly overcast but the previous evening’s threat of rain seemed to have come to nothing. Today promised to be a fine day especially for two boys whose sole intention was to relax beside the pond enjoying each other’s company.
“Where shall we cast?” asked ginger Todd licking his lips.
Sam gave some serious thought to this knotty question and answered five seconds later.
“Anywhere will do.”
Todd nodded in firm agreement as he hooked a fat worm onto a thin hook. He cast his line with an extravagant whipping motion which sent the line out over the pond to tangle itself in the reeds on the far bank. Sam gave him a quizzical look before shaking his head in silent condemnation. Todd rewound his line then tried again. This time, hook and line plipped into the centre of the pool.
“My Dad says you can get some mean old carp out of these waters,” volunteered Todd.
“I wouldn’t mind if we caught one fish but all we ever seem t’ get is bits of old crap not carp,” replied Sam.
At the word ‘crap’ Todd looked about guiltily in case his Mum, who was many yards away, had heard.
“We caught that adder,” said Todd.
“It was dead. Something had chewed its head off,” scoffed Sam.
“We still caught it,” grinned Sam.
A sudden splash made the boys look up. A duck had landed near where Todd had cast his bait.
“Shoo,” said he, waving both hands frantically.
The duck ignored him, waggling its tail feathers in defiance. Sam walked to the edge of the pond then tossed his line with baited hook straight at the duck who quacked in furious indignation before flapping to the other side, scaring a moorhen in the process.
“I’ve bought some lemonade. D’ya want some?” asked Todd
“Nah!” said Sam.
Todd took out a large bottle, unscrewed the cap, tipped the glass neck to his mouth then guzzled like a drain. When he had finished he wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. It was then that Sam cried out.
“I’ve got a bite. Look, see the line, it’s gone all taut.”
“So it has,” gawped Todd.
Sam tugged at his fishing rod feeling a strong resistance on his muscles.
“Do you want a help?” queried Todd.
At which point the catch gave up its struggle as whatever the catch was came flying to the shore. It was a black thing dripping wet but it wasn’t a fish.
“What is it?” whispered Todd when he saw the thing lying by Sam’s feet.
Sam’s face had gone chalk white. He looked as if he were about to vomit.
“It’s a hand in a leather glove,” he hissed.
Sergeant Cyril Updike stood behind the counter of Fekenham Swarberry Police Station. In his hand was a paper bag that contained a hand in a black leather glove. In front of him stood the lean figure of Harry Hertlasp, resident of the tiny hamlet of Birchtickle. It was Harry who had bought the item in to show to Cyril. Harry was a man of seventy who in many ways reminded Cyril of Brigadier Largepiece. It was the way both men carried themselves: straight backs with an air of superiority that ever so slightly irritated the policeman. He looked at the exhibit again, casting his eye over it dubiously.
“Is this a joke?” asked Cyril.
“If it is then it’s in poor taste,” replied Harry haughtily.
“Hmmm,” said Cyril, not sure what to say next.
Harry looked up to the ceiling with exasperation, then at his fingernails for the want of something better to do than stare at ceilings.
“You say it was a couple of kids who first found it?” queried Cyril.
“Hmmm,” said Cyril again.
The newly-promoted sergeant held the gloved hand up to the light and squinted at it turning it first one way then the other.
“Doesn’t look real do it?” he mused, more to himself than the gent from Birchtickle.
“Oh, it’s real enough,” intoned Harry smarmily, “just leave it out for an hour or so and it will smell real too.”
Cyril shuffled from foot to foot before composing himself.
“Right,” said the doughty police officer, “I’d best stick it in the fridge before I call for some assistance. I think this exhibit needs t’ get t’ forensics, I’d best give Winchester C.I.D a call. It ain’t often you finds a severed hand in a village pond now is it?”
Harry nodded sagely then bade the village bobby goodbye.
“Best not go too far if’n you get my meaning,” said Cyril, “I expect the Winchester boys will be wantin’ t’ have words with you.”
“You know where I live,” replied Harry as he left the station.
Cyril watched the irascible Hertlasp leave then he took the bag with the hand in it to his fridge where he laid it on a plate. He then went to the phone where he dialled the Winchester C.I.D.
“Hello Maude, its Cyril from Fekenham here. I think I best speak with that new detective of yours. What’s his name?”
“Adam Lazarus,” asserted Maude.
“That’s the fellow, Adam Lazarus. I met him last year November when the village ‘ad a spot ‘o trouble. Put him on will you?”
Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.